Steinbeck’s favorite pencils

“My choice of pencils lies between the black Calculator stolen from Fox Films and this Mongol 2 3/8 F which is quite black and holds its point well—much better in fact than the Fox pencils. I will get six more or maybe four more dozen of them for my pencil tray.”

“Pencils must be round. A hexagonal pencil cuts my fingers after a long day. You see I hold a pencil for about six hours every day. This may seem strange but it is true. I am really a conditioned animal with a conditioned hand.”

– John Steinbeck, The Paris Review No. 48, Fall 1969

Steinbeck's favorite pencils

Three pencils that we know John Steinbeck praised – the Eberhard Faber Mongol, the Blaisdell Calculator, and the Eberhard Faber Blackwing.

The Mongol 480 shown here is a less common round version. It writes very nicely!

The Blaisdell Calculator 600 is one of those pencils I thought I would never see – it is definitely the rarity of the trio. I find it to be an incredibly nice writer. It has much of that waxy smoothness of the better known Blackwing.

And, the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602, a pencil that Steinbeck praised, contradicting his requirement that pencils be round.

Steinbeck's favorite pencils

Decades old, each one still writes well and sharpens with ease. What high standards they had back then!

Steinbeck's favorite pencils

My thanks to Sean from The Blackwing Pages for sending me the Calculator and Blackwing.

See also:

Blaisdell 600 v. Blackwing 602 at The Blackwing Pages

Paris Review, John Steinbeck, The Art of Fiction No. 45 at The Paris Review

19 Replies to “Steinbeck’s favorite pencils”

  1. Too bad he’s not around to say, but it would be much more interesting to me to know which pencils Mr. Steinbeck didn’t like, or those he felt didn’t stack up to his professed favorites.

    I wonder how many committed pencil geeks can constrain themselves to a top three. I know I would have a bit of trouble with even a top five. I think Stephen should set up a photo-heavy post of his personal top three (to be fair to Mr. Steinbeck). It would be kind of fun to see Gunther, John, and other pencil bloggers join in on that as well. It could have whatever disclaimers (horses for courses, depends on my mood, not comprehensive, yadda yadda yadda) necessary to feel vindicated. Go with the gut, and don’t worry about being fair to the immense range of options and usage scenarios. :D

  2. Another classic post…it’s like getting an illustrated version of a story you’ve known, even if you’re not quite sure if or when you may have ever heard it.

  3. I agree about the round pencils. I love my Faber-Castell steno pencil (and some other round pencils I have) for that.

  4. I’ve never seen a round Mongol before! And that Blaisdell Calculator is stunning! (Not on the same level at all, but does everyone know that a round Ticonderoga exists, sold individually at places like college bookstores?)Thanks for another great post.

  5. That round Mongol is a very attractive pencil!

    I’d definitely be game for what Robert proposes — what do you gents say, Stephen and Sean? ; )

  6. Beautiful photographs, Stephen. I have never a Blaisdell Calculator before. But I do have a box or two or round Mongols, which I can now see in a new light.

  7. Steinbeck wrote many comments about writing, writing with pencils and his choice, and which pencil was the best. These comments will be found in the paperback edition of Journal of a Novel. The East of Eden Letters.

    Steinbeck wrote most of his letters on the typewriter and most of his manuscripts using a pencil or pen. He did have an electric typewriter and infrequently dictated his stories. Here are two quotation [with source] about his use of quill and a different pencil brand.

    “I always write by hand and my fingers are very sensitive to shapes and textures. Modern pencils and pens are too thick and ill-balanced, and you will understand that five to eight hours a day, holding the instrument can make this very important. The wing quill of the goose is the best for weight and balance, curve and the texture of quill is not foreign to the touch like metal or plastics. Therefore I mount the best fillers from ball points in the stem of the quill and thus have, for me, the best of all writing instruments.”

    – Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. Eugene Vinaver, 5/59, 638, Discove Cottage.

    “They (new pencils) are called Blackwings and they really glide over the paper.”

    – Journal of a Novel. 3/22/51, [Thursday], 34.

    Herb Behrens

  8. I have seen many of the original manuscripts of John Steinbeck and they were all down in pencil. Occasionally he used ink, green even, with a fountain, but usually pencil was his sword.

  9. Great thread on favorite pencils of a famous author. I’ve recently tried a number of the so-called modern “best” models, such as the Ticonderoga, Mirado, etc. None of them are dark enough for me — the lines they produce are too pale. I switched to artists sketch pencils and find they produce a smoother, more visible line. Examples are Sanford’s 2B grade 3800 drawing pencils and the Sanford Ebony model. I hear people praise the Ticonderoga, et al. all the time — am I mising something?

  10. Bob H.: It all comes down to personal preference. Some people prefer their lead a little harder and a little greyer, whereas others prefer it blacker. I’m a big fan of the last-generation of US-made Mirados, and consider them amongst my favourite pencils, but they’re definitely toward the pale-grey end of the spectrum. They’re great for day-to-day use when I’m out and don’t really want to be sharpening my pencil too often.

    On the other hand, I really enjoy using the darker Japanese HB pencils — Craft Design Technology, Tombow Mono 100, Pentel Black Polymer — which would seem to be more like what you’re looking for. All three are dark, smooth pencils that lay down a good black line. Only the Mono 100 is widely available though, as the other two are discontinued. They can be slightly pricy though, so if you don’t want to spend too much the Tombow 2558 HB and Mitsubishi 9800 HB are both cheaper and have similarly dark (though not as smooth) leads.

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